Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Denunciations of relativism

Denunciations of relativism fail to take in to account the complex equivocations we all make in everyday life.

reposted from:

Chris Street comments are in bright green;
highlights in yellow blockquotes.
Nicholas Blincoe

Tilting at postmodern windmills

December 5, 2007 11:30 AM | Printable version

So many able commentators have waded into the Terry Eagleton-Martin Amis-Ronan Bennett-Christopher Hitchens confrontation that any contribution from me would be redundant. Yet a side issue has kept tugging at my sleeve, demanding attention: namely, Martin Amis's attack on relativism. As long as I can remember,

moral relativists have been villains. They are denounced by politicians and columnists, as well as by archbishops, imams and rabbis. My problem is this: has anyone ever actually met a moral relativist?

I believe Aleister Crowley once claimed, "Do what thou wilt is the whole of the Law", but only teenage metal-heads have ever agreed: and they have trouble doing much of anything (such as leaving their bedrooms, or talking to girls.)

Where are all the mad and bad relativists?
It is true that the father of the social sciences, Claude Levi-Strauss, suggested that rival cultures appear to be underwritten by different values. Yet even as he drew our attention to this apparent "fact", he and his followers sought ways to by-pass the problem. Levi-Strauss speculated that there was a universal prohibition on incest.

Our fear and dislike of relativism is surprising when one considers science and economics.
Modern physics is all about forces and vectors, which can only be expressed in terms of relative measurements (whether "miles per hour" or E=MC squared).
When Margaret Thatcher said, "You cannot buck the market", she was arguing that all the variables of the world economy are so complex that they are beyond government planning. Yet she was relaxed about this dizzying relativism.
Why are we happy to contemplate a logic of relations in every field aside from ethics?

Martin Amis uses the word "relativist" as one might throw around terms like "sheep-shagger": it is a straw-dog argument, only one step removed from argument-by-insult (which Amis also used: claiming Ronan Bennett argues like an "idiot"). Yet Amis goes on to show how easy it is to slip into relativism. He says: "The ethos of relativism finds the demographic question so saturated in revulsions that it is rendered undiscussable." Now demographics, of course, is a maths question: it is the science of comparing population levels relative to one another. Far from placing demographics beyond debate, it is only relativism that puts it up for debate in the first place.

Amis shows how easy it is to slide into relativism, even when one claims to reject it. As a result, some conservative philosophers have argued that

the tendency to slip into relativism is evidence of a nihilistic spirit that threatens all human values.
This view is associated with Leo Strauss, but can also be found among theologians who believe our world is "fallen" or "broken". To these thinkers, the ultimate proof that the 'temporal' world is ungodly is the fact that fundamental ethical issues can be compared and contrasted (a state of affairs said to result in the unacceptable practice of "moral equivalence"). Yet it is, surely, crazy to assert that nihilism and relativism are the same thing: one is a principle of political terror, the other a facet of ordinary debate. One might also wonder how the possibility of relativism could be taken as evidence of God's existence and proof of our distance from Him.

Physicists and economists never feel they are swept up in a nihilistic descent when they go about their work. Clearly, when we turn to ethical matters, we tend to worry a great deal more. But our current debates on ethics are so fraught, we could perhaps learn from physicists and economists... and at least relax a little.

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